Is Email Dead or Did College Admissions Kill It?

Thought Leadership | Best Practices in Higher Ed | Admissions Marketing | Edupreneur |

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Ten years ago, we heard that print communication was dead. Any national conference or webinar was saying to stop printing out expensive view books and start emailing students instead. Only a few years later, we realized that email was becoming excessive and students were filing messages in spam folders or intentionally using email accounts that were never paid attention to. So, the new silver bullet our industry discovered was diversification of preferred communication channels like email, print, social media, text messaging, and more.

Before responding to the now-trending Reddit article written by a college-going student, I want to preface this post by saying one thing: Email isn’t dead, but perhaps we’re abusing this medium. According to the 2018 Social Admissions Report, we know that 86% of students prefer to communicate with colleges via email on their mobile devices. We can’t take that for granted.

Reddit r/ApplyingToCollege

There was a recent post added by a high school senior to the r/ApplyingToCollege thread on Reddit titled, A Brief Analysis of 2,347 College Emails, that has quickly been gaining popularity. I highly encourage you to read the entire post as it’s truly insightful to see how your communication plans are viewed in the eyes of a traditional incoming freshman. This particular student decided to scour his email inbox for every email he’s received from a higher education institution and shared a detailed analysis of his findings. 

Here’s a highlight reel of the college email stats this high school senior uncovered:

  • Emails were received from 115 different institutions
  • Total number of emails received was 2,374
  • Total number of unsolicited emails received was 2,175
  • Out of 115 total colleges, the average number of unsolicited emails sent was 18.9
  • 17 colleges sent a “custom application” or deadline extension — none of which he had applied to
  • 9 colleges sent emails with subject lines like "Is this you?" or "Am I reaching [First Name]?" or "Is this your email address?" and 6 colleges sent emails with the word "urgent" in the subject line

...So, what's wrong with this picture? *Cracking knuckles as I step onto my soapbox for a minute.*

First off, email is a fantastic way to communicate with students. We have proven metrics that show that. But, too often we bombard students with an array of emails pushing them to apply. Unfortunately, higher ed admissions is a world where everyone is looking at what their competitors are doing and wants to one-up them or at least meet them toe-to-toe, which has undoubtedly led to email overload and spammy behaviors.

I remember working with vendors during my time in admissions that would come to me with 60+ prewritten emails pushing inquiries to apply that they would automatically send on my behalf. This was typically in alignment with a print campaign and fast application (a pre-filled printed or emailed application that was sent to a student to help speed up their application — sometimes requirements were waived to increase submission rates).

One thing we seem to forget is that a student is not just looking at our institution during their search. This means that the average student is being contacted 30 to 40 times per day by other schools, who may in fact be using the same exact vendor to write and send their emails. Taking this one step further, those schools are typically using the same exact subject lines, P.S. sections and even bodies of emails. This equates to a lot of clutter in students’ inboxes and could hurt your ability to attract students.

Now don’t get me wrong, some vendors are great resources for pushing prospects to inquiries, and even inquiries to applicants, for institutions—especially when an institution has limited resources and staffing for conversion—but we need to think about how we are executing this vendor-led strategy. So, just like the article started, we don’t want to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater and stop using vendors or emailing to prospects, but this student’s Reddit post highlights an immense deficiency in our industry, and it’s not only hurting the individual colleges mentioned, but higher education as a whole.

Student Reading Email Inbox on Laptop

Common sense says that when a student sees a lot of emails, it’s overwhelming. We can take that a few steps further and also say that it feels like they are not known or truly being pursued by an institution in a meaningful way. It can feel like they’re just another number on the long list of prospective students getting emails. That being said, 93% of students expect personalized communications from college admissions throughout their search and application process — so why are we settling for just the opposite?


What can we, as an industry, take away from articles like this?

Don’t get discouraged if this is you. There are a lot of easy steps we can take to make this overall experience better for our prospective students.


1. Know the student and segment your communications accordingly.

Stop using blanket P.S. statements to push a second call to action in your emails. Instead, utilize your CRM solution to personalize calls to action, since you already know what actions a student has or has not taken. If you need to add a little caveat in an email, then you should probably rethink sending that email to begin with.


2. Read through all of your planned application push emails to prospects, and then cut your total number of emails by at least half.

Think strategically and put yourself in the recipient’s shoes. If a company emailed you all the time about buying something, especially if you did not ask to be on their mailing list in the first place, would that drive you to purchase it? My guess is probably not. In fact, it may have the opposite effect and turn you off of that company. Scale back and think strategically — less can (and should) be more!


3. Ditch the generics.

When you use conditional logic for a student, like including information that’s based on their actual interests or needs, they are more likely to feel a connection to your college or university. We really need to evolve beyond the tired  merge field and make students feel special and sought after, and help them see themselves at your institution.


4. Emojis are cool ☺️, but do they speak to your academic excellence and integrity?

While emojis may work for your school, we have to remember that this is a huge financial investment and life changing decision for most students. Thinking through when and where you incorporate emojis should be a priority for your team. While it's definitely a case by case basis, I generally recommend reserving emojis for 1:1 texts or emails from a counselor/recruiter.


5. Be authentic and maintain consistency.

If an email is not actually sent from your iPad or iPhone, then it’s probably best not to add that line in the email. Remember: this generation of students are savvier than you think. They specifically talk about this tactic in the comment section of the Reddit response, as well, and how it reeks of phoniness to them. My mantra is authenticity over everything!


6. Make sure to exclude students from receiving duplicate emails.

(Or even three times as the article mentions!)

Repetitive emails have a negative impact on a student’s perception of a school. Reporting and cross-filtering can be your best friend in this scenario. Another quick fix is to select that if a student was already enrolled in a certain campaign workflow before, that they do not receive the same campaign again. We keep saying this, but put yourself in their shoes. How would you feel if you received the same (or even a really similar) email several times? 


7. Don’t overuse your school's motto or key phrases.

This holds especially true when it comes to subject lines. This can give off the impression that it’s the same email, or that students have just been copied over to another campaign. Keep it original and grab their attention for the right reasons.


8. Always use proper grammar.

Using the number “0” instead of letter “o”, does not make your message look “c0oler” or more relatable to today’s generation of students. Students are going to your school for an education, so grammar is always important.


9. Deadline extensions or gimmicky application discounts do not elevate your institution’s brand.

Students read between the lines and may perceive a deadline extension or “sale” as an act of desperation. Even if you’re struggling to hit your application numbers or planned on extending the deadline from the very beginning — don’t make this obvious or you’ll be met with skepticism from prospects. If you have a deadline, adhere to it unless there are extenuating circumstances.


10. Subject lines are important.

Make sure you’re coming up with thoughtful and descriptive email subjects. When working with an outside vendor, it’s best to come up with unique subject line variations pertaining specifically to your school’s brand identity and campus culture, rather than taking the copy and paste approach.

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Above all, we need to put the Excel marketing calendar down and take a step back. Remember that we’re in the business of serving students — not spamming them. When you approach recruitment efforts from a position of best serving students in their search in order to highlight why they’d be a good fit at your institution, it demonstrates care, thoughtfulness and, most importantly, helps you stand out from all the noise. Prevent your institution from landing on the list of schools sending the most emails or using the same old subject lines. And if you are, that’s okay, but now is the perfect opportunity to reflect and inspire action accordingly. Students are at the heart of what we do, so let’s recruit them with the level of attention and care they not only expect, but deserve.